"We need a County Council that will deliver efficiently against what people actually need, with compassion and our communities at the heart of its strategy." Cllr Elisa Meschini, Leader of the County Council Labour Group
The dust may have settled after the meeting on the 9th of February, where the Conservative administration passed their budget proposals for the period from now until April 2026. But given the choices that they made in what they focused investment on (and what they pointedly didn’t), the debate is likely to carry on over the spring and summer, and there will be no actual dust settling on our roads for quite a while – read on.
The Labour Group went into the budget meeting expecting at least some attention to be paid to Covid recovery in our communities. After all, we have one in five workers on furlough, and extremely high numbers of families have seen their income drop so sharply over the duration of the pandemic that they have been unable to feed themselves and their children. A key demographic requiring help have been families with children qualifying for free school meals. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Labour Party nationally and of Marcus Rashford, the government has u-turned enough times to guarantee funding for those meals to continue to be provided over the school holidays up to (but not including) Easter 2021. In addition to that, the County has seen record requests for help through its Hubs from people of all ages and situations struggling to afford not only food, but household essentials, bills, white good maintenance and repairs, and clothing. We have spent £1.4m of government funding on helping these people up until April 2021.
As a result of this, we expected the administration to give some thought to budgeting to continue these efforts for ourselves, as even in the most optimistic of outlooks people are extremely unlikely to stop needing help after April. The Labour group proposed the allocation of approximately £4m for this purpose in our own budget amendment, dwarfing analogous proposals by the lib dems which were only just over £0.5m.
Neither opposition budget amendment was, of course, passed. So how much money did the administration commit to community Covid recovery for the 2021/22 financial year?
Zero. Zilch. Not one single penny.
Go back and read that again. Yes, that’s correct. Questioned, the Conservative Leader of the Council assured us that more government funding would come to protect communities after April. Excuse me while I attempt to unclench my fingers, which have been crossed for the best part of the past year. Of course we hope the government will send us more funding. After all, local authorities have been starved of any government funding for three years, with the Revenue Support Grant phased out and no scheme to replace it. Our budget deficits have increased year on year since, and of course this last year was really scary. So the government had to break with tradition and hand local authorities large grants to keep them afloat during the pandemic. We hope that this will continue until we are properly out of the woods, but we can’t count on it. A lot of this funding has come at the last minute, following u-turns, and this is no way to allow local authorities to do any basic budgeting of their resources.
In the meantime, people are actually starving. It is the least the County can do to keep its Hubs properly funded so we can help people through this winter and beyond.
But there we are. No money for community recovery at all. So, I hear you ask, what did the administration choose to spend its money on, if not on its most vulnerable people?
Not on community grants to local charities, which have been slashed by 70% despite these charities having stepped in to provide a lot of the services that Conservative government austerity has been slashing since 2010. Not on help with return to school, with the inequality inherent in home schooling creating a yawning gap between the most and the least well off pupils. Not on Adults Social Care, which is in disarray, with the government green paper several years overdue and our commissioning requiring deep transformation to keep the spending down. And not even on paying its own staff the Real Living Wage, which is a real show of gratitude (not) towards all of our staff who have been working incredibly hard to keep us ticking on, responding to need and putting out fires above and beyond expectations.
Instead, millions and millions of revenue and capital investment are going into highways maintenance. But, I hear you say, that’s good. Our highways are in a state of terrible disrepair. From basic pothole filling to re-surfacing, re-painting and re-signing, basic highways maintenance is in high need of attention.
Which of course I completely agree with. It is tempting to put money towards such obvious underfunding. Yet… since the first budget this newly installed Conservative administration did in 2018, the line has remained unchanged. Our highways have been the headline each year, and correspondingly high headline-grabbing figures have been committed to highways repair. Since 2018, this administration has committed an eye-watering £66.5m to highways funding from its own coffers, without counting ringfenced government funding for the same purpose.
Which of course leads us to ask – what have they got to show for it? From Wisbech to St Neots to Cambridge, the state of our highways is as dire as it ever was. What is it about highways that seems to result in them always needing more resources, no matter how much is committed each year?
I do have an idea of the answer to this, myself, and it isn’t (completely) to do with money. There is of course no point pouring millions into something when the infrastructure for delivery is so clearly lacking. Case in point the funding the government provided last year to implement schemes across the County to encourage safe and active travel during the pandemic. A large package of such schemes was passed, unanimously, by the County Council’s Highways committee last September. Yet, six months on, none of these schemes has got even remotely off the ground. This points to a problem not of underfunding, but of structural inefficiency. And makes a mockery of taxpayers’ hard earned cash, when we are being bamboozled with huge sums of money which are going not into filling our potholes but into a seemingly bottomless pit never to be seen again.
So we look forward to next May, when we hope that voters will show the Conservative administration of this County exactly what they think of the work that has been done, or, as the case in fact is, not done, over the past four years. We need a County Council that will deliver efficiently against what people actually need, with compassion and our communities at the heart of its strategy.
Let’s hope we get it.
Cllr Elisa Meschini, Kings Hedges Ward